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Beowulf is a hero and the embodiment of good. But good cannot exist alone, and there is not one but three villains or embodiments of evil in the poem ‘Beowulf.’ In this lesson, we’ll take a look at the good versus evil aspects of this epic poem.

Good vs.

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Evil

In the epic poem Beowulf, both good and evil are clearly defined. Beowulf himself embodies all that is good, but it’s often expressed through his super-human capabilities. The monsters, including Grendel, his mother, and the dragon, all embody evil, and in fighting and defeating them, Beowulf is working to save not only the monsters’ victims but the whole of humanity.

Beowulf as Good

One of the most important things to note about Beowulf is that he doesn’t fight men at any point in the poem. The wars and clashes that happen between humans don’t directly involve him. He sometimes argues with humans, like he does with Unferth before the battle with Grendel, but Beowulf fights monsters.

This shows him as a defender of humanity and truly on the side of good.Most people in Beowulf aren’t portrayed as purely good or evil. Only Beowulf and Wiglaf are described as good.

And like goodness, only Beowulf and Wiglaf appear to be self-sacrificing. They are the only characters who rush to help humanity or another character without concern for their own safety.

Grendel as Evil

If Beowulf is the force of good in this epic, Grendel is the embodiment of evil. Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain. Cain, a son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother Able.

For his crime, Cain and all his descendants were forever banished from the company of God and of good.Cain’s descendants, according to the poem, became every sort of evil creature. One of these lines of descendants led to Grendel. Throughout Beowulf, Grendel is described as mankind’s enemy, and his attacks are driven by the jealousy that humans are able to enjoy life in the light, and he is condemned to misery in the darkness.

It’s not just Grendel’s ancestry that makes him evil; Grendel’s actions are evil as well. He breaks into the Herot and kills warriors as they sleep. He creeps around the moors, snatching and eating people one-by-one.

Grendel does not fight honorably, at least not until he is confronted by Beowulf. But Grendel’s actions are more than just evil. He, Grendel, rejects the core values of civilization.

The poem recounts how Grendel is offered wergild and land, but continues his acts regardless of the attempts to pacify him.When Beowulf fights Grendel, he doesn’t use weapons; he fights Grendel with his bare hands, honorably. Grendel is unused to such a fight and is quickly defeated by Beowulf. He runs off to his lair, bleeding, rather than staying and finishing the fight.

Grendel’s Mother as Evil

Grendel’s mother has more understandable motives than her son, but she also doesn’t fight fair. She snatches Hrothgar’s friend in the dead of night, much as her son attacked.

Then, she defiled his body by leaving his decapitated head on the shore line. When Beowulf jumps into the water, she quickly grabs him and pulls him under, making a fair fight impossible.And yet, each time Beowulf faces a monster, he emerges triumphant.

In both the battles with Grendel and Grendel’s mother, Beowulf is rewarded, but he doesn’t do it for the gold. He fights for the glory of it, and to rid Denmark of these evil creatures.

Battling the Dragon

In a lot of ways, the battle with the dragon is different than the battles with Grendel and his mother. For one thing, Beowulf is fighting to defend his own land this time. The battle is more self-serving than self-sacrificing. For another, Beowulf’s motivation is more about greed than it has been in the past.

When he is wounded and about to die, Beowulf tells Wiglaf that he sold his life for treasure, and he ‘sold it well.’Also, in the battle with the dragon, Beowulf requires help. He is unable to defeat the creature on his own. When Wiglaf rushes in to help him, Wiglaf is almost taking the place of Beowulf as the character representing good in the story – just as he will take his place as king of the Geats.

Light vs.

Dark

No discussion of the good and evil in Beowulf is complete without mentioning all the light and dark imagery in the poem. In the beginning, Heorot is described as ‘gold-shining,’ while Grendel lives ‘down in the darkness.’ The contrast between light and dark is made clear during the battle with Grendel’s mother, as well. When Beowulf defeats the water-witch, the hall they are in suddenly fills with light because Beowulf has eradicated the evil from Denmark.

This light and dark imagery comes back in the section with the dragon, too. The dragon is hiding in the darkness – hiding the gold, which represents light, away from sight and from use.

Lesson Summary

Beowulf is certainly an epic of good versus evil.

The difference between them is striking, especially in the beginning of the poem. On the side of good, we have the hero Beowulf and his loyal follower Wiglaf, and on the side of evil, we have the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. As Beowulf battles each of these representations of evil in succession, the lines between good and evil get a bit blurred. In the end, good has won despite the death of the hero and the uncertainty of the future!

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